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    Should museums offer free admission to everyone?

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    When asked about the rising cost of admission at the major art museums back in 2002, then Metropolitan Museum of Art director Philippe de Montebello seemed to find the question strange. Comparing admission fees favorably to ticket prices for a rock concert, he famously countered, “What is it about art that it shouldn’t be paid for?”

    More than a decade later, it’s a question that remains unresolved in the museum world. On the face of it, de Montebello had a point, but the comparison also smacked of sophistry. Museums are nonprofit, charitable institutions whose sole purpose is to provide an educational and cultural experience to visitors; rock concerts, on the other hand, are for-profit entertainment. But what responsibility do museums have to making sure their offerings are accessible to all? The calculus has become even more complicated as a variety of institutions consider — or rule out — eliminating admission fees altogether.

    Going to a museum today can be quite expensive. Adults pay $25 at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and $15 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It is no less expensive to visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York ($25), the Guggenheim ($22), the Whitney ($22), the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia ($22), the Art Institute of Chicago ($23), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ($18), or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art ($15). It’s impossible to know who might have gone to a museum but ultimately did not due to price — surveys conducted at these institutions generally include only people who showed up — but faced with $60 in admission fees for a family of four, it is reasonable to conclude certain visitors are deterred by the high cost of getting through the doors.


    In New York, David R. Jones, president and chief executive officer for the Community Service Society of New York, refers to that city’s high admission fees as “cultural apartheid,” noting that the “cost of culture . . . has effectively priced out a large segment of the city’s population.” Bruce J. Altshuler, director of New York University’s Program in Museum Studies, concurred, adding the Museum of Modern Art’s “attitude towards increasing attendance by people in the lower and even middle economic strata is implicit in its policy. The museum is saying, in effect, ‘We’re already at capacity. We don’t need a lot more people.’ ”

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    The Dallas Museum of Art and Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha have led the art world in a very different direction, both eliminating their admission fees two years ago. Jack Becker, director and chief executive officer of the Joslyn, explains that the goal “is accessibility; to never deny the opportunity to view original works of art in our collection to anyone because of an inability to pay.”

    The Dallas Museum of Art (left) and the Joslyn Art Musem in Omaha.

    The Joslyn was free to the public for decades after its founding in 1931, but it added an admission charge of $8 for adults in the 1990s. Annually, the fees amounted to roughly $200,000, or between 2 and 4 percent of the museum’s total revenues. There was one admission-free time in the course of the week, from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays — “and we had more than 40 percent of all our weekly visitors show up then,” Becker said. “That revealed the widespread desire for us to be free, as we always had been, and we followed through on that.”

    Losing that 2 percent in revenues hasn’t harmed the Joslyn museum’s finances since there has been an increase in visitors — “I’ve seen a lot of people who haven’t been through the doors here in 20 years, if ever, because they couldn’t afford to come,” Becker said — who are eating at the museum’s café and making purchases at its gift shop. “The earned income more than offsets the loss in admissions.”

    Still, other museums are not backing down. In 1992, the Washington, D.C.-based American Alliance of Museums reported that only 36 percent of all art museums in the United States charged any admissions. A similar study conducted in 2008 reported that only one-third of all museums were free to the public, with the average admission fee being $10 for adults. “Admission revenue is a critical part of the multilayered funding mix that supports the museum and its operations,” according to a spokesman for the Met, who added that admission fees produce “some $38.2 million annually,” approximately 15 percent of the institution’s revenues. At the Art Institute of Chicago, admissions account for 13 percent of revenues. About 6 percent of the MFA’s annual revenues are from admissions.


    The willingness of visitors to keep coming even with admission fees rising may be attributable to what economists call the elasticity of demand — the degree to which price affects the volume of demand. The large number of people who want to go to some of the most expensive museums make those institutions less willing to lower or eliminate admission fees. Certain products are more sensitive to the budget restraints of consumers, but museum admissions might not fall into that category. Even at $20-plus per person, the price may seem “low because museums are still very cheap entertainment, and they are special occasions,” said Gerald Friedman, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts. “You won’t shun the Uffizi to save a few dollars after taking the trouble and expense to get to Florence, Italy.” Or New York City or Boston or Chicago, the argument would go.

    Out-of-state and international visitors to the Metropolitan annually account for 50 to 55 percent of the total attendance. Those people are spending a considerable amount of money on transportation, hotels, and dining, making even the museum’s top suggested fee of $25 seem modest in comparison, according to Wells Fargo Bank chief economist John Silvia. “Because of the wealth and foreign visitors in New York City, there is very little price elasticity,” he said. “They can probably charge much more and not lose a customer.”

    Many museums find themselves having to choose between public policy considerations, which would promote access and thereby lower or eliminate admission fees, and economic priorities, which would compel institutions to maximize revenues from all available sources, such as admission fees. Most, however, try to find a balance between the two, usually through what is called variable pricing. For instance, the Art Institute in Chicago has a range of discounted admissions that aim to expand the opportunity, such as for adults who are Illinois residents ($20) or who live in Chicago ($18), for seniors and students ($17), for students who are residents of Illinois ($14) and students who are residents of Chicago ($12), and children under 14 (free). In addition, there is free admission for all Illinois residents on Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m.

    The Baltimore Museum of Art used to offer free Thursdays but decided in 2006 to completely eliminate general admissions, resulting in an annual loss of $240,000. At 2 percent of the museum’s budget, this move seemed worthwhile in order to attract the people who were put off from coming in because of the price of admission, according to Doreen Bolger, the museum’s recently retired director. “We’re a community-based museum in a city of 650,000, and 53 percent of the population is African-American.” Since 2006, she added, “The audience is more diverse.” Just as important, Bolger suggested, was that eliminating admission fees helped to change the perception of the museum among city residents. Doing away with admissions did lead to a drop-off in memberships of 10 percent — since many regular visitors become members principally to avoid ticket lines — but area businesses and wealthy donors stepped forward to create a free admission endowment, which has helped to make up the difference.

    Daniel Grant is the author of “The Business of Being an Artist.”

    Correction: This article previously misstated the price of admission at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It is $15 for adults.